Dec. 21 2015 04:50 PM

Are some drivers incompetent, or secret soldiers?


When I need a ride-share service, I've been loath to use Uber since November of last year, when one of its senior executives arrogantly told a few journalists the company was considering hiring opposition researches to dig up dirt on its media critics.

The guy seemed like quite the piece of work, so even though I had no reason beyond common curiosity, I started digging into Uber Senior Vice President Emil Michael, who not only made the general threat to all reporters, but singled out PandoDaily's Sarah Lacey as a specific target for spreading presumably embarrassing details of her personal life.

But Emil Michael, it turned out, isn't just a vindictive guy in Uber's executive suite, he's an advisor to the Pentagon's Defense Business Board. Prior to that, he was a special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, under the (first?) Clinton Administration.

You can make of that what you will, but what I made of it was that Uber is not a company I want to support if I can help it.

So I started using Lyft, the Pepsi to Uber's Coke, the Avis to its Hertz. And my experience had been perfect...until last week. And while I don't have all the answers to what went down, it was suspicious enough that I just want to toss a bunch of facts your way and—like what you might make of Mr. Michael—you can decide for yourself.

Last Thursday, I needed a ride to the airport for a flight to New York City. I summoned Lyft. Be there in six minutes. In five minutes, I'm alerted the driver, Tyler, is parked in front of my house. He's not.

So I call Tyler through the Lyft app. He assures me he's in front of my place, though he clearly isn't. Then he tells me he's on 33rd Street, a block east of me. I have no idea how this is possible. My app clearly displays I live on Bancroft, which runs parallel. The app also clearly displays he's a block away on 33rd.

Tyler says he'll be right there and starts driving...but the wrong way. He keeps going the wrong way as we're on the phone. I say to him, "Dude, what, you don't have GPS? I am going to be pissed if I miss my flight because of this!"

Tyler hangs up on me. I call back three times. Nobody picks up. At that point I call Uber but they can't get there in time.

Ultimately, I'm forced to drive to the airport, where I park in short-term parking, costing me $180. On my drive to the airport, I get a text that Tyler has cancelled. I made my flight, but it was close.

On my flight, fuming, I was left to wonder:

How could Tyler possibly have ended up on 33rd Street instead of Bancroft Street? GPS made it pretty clear exactly where I was.

Is it possible Uber (or other services) has moles in Lyft to undermine its customer experience? There has been much reporting about Uber's subterfuge to sabotage its competitors, Lyft particularly.

When I got back to San Diego, I called a couple GPS experts around town to see if Tyler's problem that became my problem was an honest mistake, or signs of something much bigger.

"We've evaluated various off-brand third-party navigation and mapping apps in the past, and many of them were inaccurate in finding addresses as well as navigation," says Yukon Palmer, chief service promoter at FieldLogix, San Diego's Green GPS Fleet Management Solution.

"It could be the map used to display your address for the driver was inaccurate, or didn't contain your exact address," Palmer says. "Perhaps it used a 'best guess' method to determine your location."

According to a Lyft representative, drivers have three options to choose from for their default navigation app: Google maps, Waze or Apple maps. The rep wrote that "in some cases, when an address is entered by a passenger, Google maps will sometimes place the pin directly on top of the property, rather than at the front entrance. This can cause the GPS to navigate to the wrong side of the property."

The wrong side of my property is an unnamed back alley, while Tyler told me he was on 33rd street. Moreover, nobody from Lyft had ever had that problem before, and my Lyft app showed everything exactly in the right place. But Palmer was gracious and diplomatic, not to mention further up the food chain, so I then sought out somebody else.

"I think it's not a tech thing, I think it's a competence thing," says Roman Leon, who works in tech support at GPS International Technologies. "If you can see where you are on your phone, then they should be able to see it."

So are we talking about a dumb driver or an intentionally incompetent one? I know for a fact that practically every Lyft driver who's picked me up also drives for Uber. Every single one of them has told me Lyft treats its drivers better.

We also know from earlier reporting in The Verge, and elsewhere, that Uber has worked hard to make Lyft look bad by calling and canceling rides, and even developing a strategic campaign called Operation SLOG to destroy Lyft's reputation with customers.

The American military and intelligence, meanwhile, has long history, from Operation Mockingbird to Operation Gladio and many other clandestine operations both known and surely still unknown, to infiltrate opponents and take them down from the inside.

Could a guy like Emil Michael strategize such things, with his military background and consulting gig with the Pentagon? Not for me to say, but if so, the guy owes me 180 bucks.


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